Democracy in Distress

By Anjum Altaf 

Over two thousand years ago Plato was skeptical of democracy because he felt that voters, even those restricted to property-owning male citizens, were swayed too easily by the rhetoric of self-serving politicians.

Democracy disappeared for over 1,500 years following its demise in Athens and it was only then that its slow evolution began in England and spread to other parts of the world. Doubts regarding its efficacy persisted but were countered by arguments that it was the worst form of government except for all others.

Not that this was considered universally applicable – during colonialism it was openly asserted that natives were not ready for democracy. Similar reservations regarding the developing world persisted beyond the end of colonialism. In the 1990s the late Richard Holbrooke was reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”

We rightly attribute these attitudes to the realpolitik that rationalized empire-building and later interventions to replace democratic governments with pliant authoritarian ones. They were just as self-serving as their more recent converse – regime-change with the professed aim of promoting democracy.

Nevertheless, the intellectual challenge to democracy was unaddressed – after all Hitler was popularly elected and voters have often elected leaders who they themselves condemn as thieves and rascals. Genuine doubts regarding the capacity of the electoral process to yield competent leadership remain and the democratic experiment is not old enough to argue unequivocally that the case is closed.

The revival of this debate now is due to the turmoil in the democratic homeland – governmental gridlock, the surge in extremist sentiment all over Europe, and the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US. As one comment put it: “With a vain fool like Trump on the political stage in America and racist bigots and know-nothings voting all over the world it’s a good time to ponder the wisdom of the political systems that allow this to happen.”

In this context the political theorist Daniel Bell has made waves with his book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, in which he has questioned the article of faith that one-person-one-vote is the best way of selecting leaders. He offers as a credible alternative the still-evolving Chinese model based on democratic local elections and meritocratic selection of top national leaders. In this system, local leaders handling basic issues of service delivery remain accountable to voters but national leaders who need to make complex and unpopular decisions are chosen based on knowledge and experience.

Similar reservations about democratic decision-making have been expressed more recently by Richard Dawkins with reference to the British referendum on EU membership. Dawkins asks: “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me… You want your surgeon to know anatomy… Why would you entrust your country’s economic and political future to know-nothing voters like me?”

Heated exchanges on the relative merits of Western and Asian values had erupted a few decades back in the wake of the East Asian crisis but the self-serving claims lacked objectivity. The challenge from scholars like Bell and Dawkins carries more legitimacy because they do not have political or economic interests at stake.

The point of airing this argument is not to assert that democracy in Pakistan should be replaced by military dictatorship or monarchy. Rather, it is to urge a critical examination of the rules underpinning the electoral process by which leaders are selected and made accountable. Much has changed since the birth of democracy in England – corporations more powerful than many countries did not exist then and neither did the means of swaying voters now available. With the visible transition of democracy to plutocracy in the US and the dangerous manipulation of extremist sentiments, it should be obvious that reforms are required to repair the systemic distortions that have accrued over time.

Electoral systems are nothing more than sets of rules. Consider some that exist in the US – primaries to select party candidates, first-past-the-post elections, super delegates with decisive power, the Electoral College, and the treatment of corporations as individuals. Change any of these and the outcomes could be different. At the same time, failure to agree on rules can have tragic outcomes as witnessed in the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

Debates are structured around ideas and critical ideas are nurtured in schools and colleges that have failed to do an adequate job in Pakistan. It is no wonder that our popular discourse remains mired in a simplistic choice between democracy and dictatorship ignoring the hard work of assessing the set of electoral reforms that would improve governance and promote leaders that are more competent and accountable to citizens.

This op-ed was published in Dawn on June 26, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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One Response to “Democracy in Distress”

  1. Anjum Altaf Says:

    An excellent historical overview of the woes of democracy:

    http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/power-to-the-people-2/

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